Aimee Ogden joins the blog to discuss the plight that many of Lulu’s—of her story “Lulu’s Friends” on sale in our current issue now—relatives face trying to survive on planet Earth.
by Aimee Ogden
One of the many roles that science fiction plays is in challenging us to consider how we fit into a certain vision of the future. How could we let X happen? How could we stop it? What would we do in the face of Y? If Z goes on, et cetera. The toolbox of speculative fiction opens up a whole new realm of possibilities to examine these questions, to underscore or undermine them. Our job as readers, if we so choose, is to turn that lens onto our contemporary lives and sharpen the focus on the spots that trouble us. In Lulu’s Friends, my story in this issue, I sought to create a troubling ethical situation with a non-human primate at its heart; it wasn’t until after I’d finished writing it that I realized I was already living in a different version of the same paradigm.
So I’d like to talk to you today about chocolate.
On the face of it, chocolate—though always a beloved topic—doesn’t appear to have much to do with my story. Lulu’s Friends is about biomedical research, about animal rights and scientific ethics.
It also has an orangutan for a protagonist.
By the time you read this, you’ll have already bought the chocolate for Christmas stockings and New Year’s treats. But Valentine’s Day (and its counterpart on the 15th of February, Half-Price Candy Day) is marching swiftly toward us, and chocolates will once again be flying off the shelves. Most of that chocolate includes palm oil, and a lot of that palm oil comes from unsustainable sources that have quickly depleted orangutan populations.
There’s a beauty and simplicity in examining difficult questions in speculative fiction. There’s the safety of distance, for one thing; after all, right now we’re all overstocked with these difficult questions. Climate change is breathing its 0.8°F-warmer-than-average breath down our necks, brutal storms and wildfires are devastating ever-widening swathes of the globe, and—just hazarding a guess here—Flint still doesn’t have clean water by the time you’re reading this post. Speculative fiction also allows us to address one piece of the puzzle at a time, while real-life questions lead into one another without a clear place to start or stop. Ending unsustainable palm oil production is no easy ask, and doing so will require us to untangle the ugly knots of decolonization and economic growth. And both of those issues are far bigger than a few Sumatran rainforests.
But we don’t read science fiction just because it’s easier than real life. In its clarity, it can give us the perspective needed to find the ways through our world’s current ills. If science fiction has a simplicity that real life lacks, well, a blade is simple too. Maybe if we can’t unwind the tangled web we’ve woven, we can slice through it.
So for those of you who still have the bandwidth, can I ask you to fit in yet another difficult question? And for you to decide what shape the answer can take in your life?
If so, when you’re shopping for sweetheart boxes or just some chocolate chips to throw into the cookie batter needed to get you through the long hard Northern Hemisphere slog toward spring—and if you’re able to afford the increased price tag—flip the package over. Look for an RSPO or Green Palm label to tell you what kind of sustainability backs up the chocolate inside. Check the ingredients on your soap and shampoo, too, while you’re at it. Where you can, support organizations that promote conservation and sustainable land development.
And, since I can’t pretend it’s possible to simply ethical-consumerism issues of this magnitude into change, please join me in writing a letter, making a call, asking (demanding?) that companies do better. Chocolate can be pricey; advocacy is much more affordable. Doing nothing is the one that comes with a price tag too costly to pay.
Let’s do what we can to shift things for the better now. I enjoyed writing about Lulu—but I’d prefer it if stories with orangutans in them didn’t become the sole purview of science fiction.